Can we ever overcome the problem of envy? —by Caro Cooper

 

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This is excerpted from the August 2011 issue of The Lifted Brow.

 

As iron is eaten by rust, so are the envious consumed by envy.
—Antisthenes

 

I didn’t go to my high school reunion. I didn’t go because I couldn’t afford the flight. And I don’t mean I didn’t go because I couldn’t get there—I could have borrowed the money. But what would have been the point of turning up if I couldn’t afford a short domestic flight? Aren’t high school reunions only worth going to if you own the airline, are married to a plastic surgeon and look younger than you did in school? Reunions are envy events; you go because you think you’re enviable. Or am I just a bad sport? No—I’ve seen Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion, I know I’m right.

No one speaks about envy but it’s the dirty secret we all harbour. Well, it’s one of the dirty secrets we all harbour—I also have a penchant for ripping off my toenails, which a family member once witnessed and claimed as the reason I would never find a decent man. Speaking openly about envy feels akin to admitting to a great weakness and an evil streak. “I am envious of your success” translates to “I wish you would fail, I deserve your success more than you do” and, most importantly, “I am not happy with my lot.”I am not happy with who, what or where I am compared to you: no one wants to say that outside of therapy, and therefore few of us do. And envy itself feeds on this secrecy. Like yeast, it likes dark, damp places. Here in your depths envy grows, inspiring more sadness, eroding self-confidence, increasing bitterness, and ultimately spawning further envy. It’s an emotional gremlin. “Our envy of others will devour us most of all” spoke the wise, somewhat depressing Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

As your envy grows in you, it also grows with you, shifting its focus and targets as you move through life. At twelve I envied the girls at school who needed bras. At sixteen I envied girls with boyfriends, as pimply and sexually inept as those boys were. In my early twenties I began to envy people who knew what they wanted to be. At twenty-nine, I may still envy girls who are able to wear bras, but I also find myself envying girls who have nice Danish furniture and are good dinner party hosts. As my tastes and attitudes have changed, so has the focus of my envy—but never its essential makeup, part of which is secrecy. Right now you might be cringing as I talk openly about it, but are you cringing at my exposure or because you’re the same?

You may never mention your envy, but you feel it, right? And, probably at different points, I bet the people around you do too. I know I can see it when friends of mine come down with envy. It knocks them out like the flu—they get pale, weak, pathetic. It doesn’t matter who they’re envying, it’s never fun to witness. And left unchecked, it can turn into bitterness, which is worse. Schopenhaeur said that envy resides in every human breast like venom. And no one likes a poisonous breast. You can spend a life with envy. Hell, most of us do (just look at your parents). Or you can try to kill it. I don’t know if this will kill it—I don’t know if anything can—but perhaps, like a fungal infection, a little airing out might help.

*

Envy runs through the veins of history. It’s seen people kill, take their own lives, maim, undermine and give up. It gave my sister a rash and made me cry myself to sleep. It has the power to dismantle and to push its host further from her goals, deeper into pits of self-hate and resentment. It is into these oubliettes that I have fallen, fallen, fallen so many times before and then spent weeks, days, and months clawing my way out like Beatrix Kiddo in Kill Bill. I need to apply the five-fingered exploding heart technique to my envy; I need to blow the fucker sky high.

Envy is the Ebola of emotions. It is the question “why them, and not me?” It is a reaction to something we consider unjust or unfair; it is a feeling of impotence. It is covetousness and yearning turned resentful. It’s an abstract noun, so it’s hard to hope for a tidy definition. Envy is the feeling we have, or more correctly the feeling we suffer, when we see the achievements of others that we want for ourselves. Pure envy takes this rotten feeling to a whole other level. This is defined by Joseph Epstein as the type of envy where you no longer wish for a personal advantage but just the disadvantage of your envied subject: you want them to fail. It’s seriously malicious. Author and psychologist Helmut Schoeck uses this example to define pure envy: “the envious man thinks that if his neighbour breaks his leg, he will be able to walk better himself.” There is no accounting for the twisted way we humans think.

Envy begins with aspirations and ends with hatred, and it’s universal. You get that, right? Unlike all your other problems, with envy you are not alone. There is, according to Schoeck, a word for envy in almost every language. In fact the Germans even have a word for food envy: Futterneid. Envy isn’t just in you and me: it’s in fables, children’s stories, plays, literature, philosophy, art, music, and, of course, politics. It’s in your book club, your writers’ group, your mothers’ group and your office. And did I mention your writers’ group?

Before going any further with envy it’s important to separate it from jealousy. Jealousy is fueled by the fear that you may lose something you have: that horror of horrors, losing your partner to some Barbie with a D-cup and a GHD hair straightener or, even worse, a smart girl that you would actually like if she wasn’t getting her leg over your partner. Jealousy is passionate and far more obvious than envy. It is the reason you screamed at your partner and stormed off into oncoming traffic, or maybe that’s just me. It is the fury that spurred NASA astronaut Lisa Marie Nowak to drive non-stop from Texas to Florida in nappies and a wig with the aim of kidnapping and assaulting her ex-boyfriend’s new lover; it is the fire that burned so brightly in Leon Borthwick that he drove over his ex-girlfriend’s partner in his mother’s car. Jealousy has caused parents to murder children and innumerous spurned lovers to wreak murderous havoc, which I know because I have bothered to open myself up to the world and spend some time watching commercial police procedurals.

Envy is less newsworthy than jealousy but equally powerful: it is the curse that spawns the desire to see others fail. For example, “I don’t want her to win the award” because I am envious of her success, “I hope he gets dumped” because I am envious that he is content, or plain old “I want what she has”, which is never complete without a decent foot stamp and pouted bottom lip. Envy is born from comparison: it is about seeing what others have and seeing how without it you are less. Envy is “shit, you’re a size eight and I’m a twelve”; “you have a nice car and I catch the bus”; and “you are married and still have an active sex life and I don’t”. Envy is all these things and everything else you could, and have, imagined. And it’s not just about other people having what you want—there’s also a little bit of you that believes the envied is the cause of your deprivation. “Not only does Stacey have the boyfriend I want but it is also because of her that I don’t have him. Bitch.” Both envy and jealousy can range from petty to crippling, and grow in everyone from innocent-looking children to the most beautiful, most desirable and most powerful of people. Especially the most powerful of people.

While envy and jealousy are different from each other, they have several things in common, the primary being that they are both as enjoyable as Guardia and can cause loss of appetite, sleep and sometimes your mind. I have definitely felt them both, but that’s okay: I’m in some pretty celebrated company. The son of Adam and Eve was an envious little loincloth, according to Genesis. Covetousness is a big ol’ Bible word and it’s exactly what triggered Cain’s fratricide of Abel. Abel’s offering to God, of some of his flock, was accepted by the Lord. Cain’s vegetable-based offering was considered a little gauche and God passed on it. Abel had God’s approval; he was the son in better standing. Cain was not happy. Life is a competition, at least in the eyes of the envier. This person wants to be the winner and to achieve that they need to displace that annoying friend or foe who happens to be wearing the sash. The Old Testament being a brutal work, young Cain appeared to not think twice before taking his baby brother for a walk—a walk that would see Cain return alone.

Some sources suppose that Cain’s motive was envy fuelled not by Abel’s relationship with God but by Abel’s having the more beautiful wife. Cain and Abel were to marry twin sisters, with Cain’s being the lesser twin. And what better reason to murder your kin? Whatever triggered the envy, Cain’s seems to be the first recorded story of envy and its miserable effects. As his slaughtering of Abel so beautifully displays, for envy to exist there needs to be two parties, the envier and the envied. One of those parties will feel inferior or jilted. The other can be completely oblivious.

We don’t envy just anybody. Instead, we compare ourselves to our peers, the people who operate within our class or lifestyle. We envy the people who are like us—but better. I don’t envy Beyoncé for her dancing skills, what would be the point? She exists in a realm of movement that is entirely unachievable for a person like me. Instead I envy the way my sister can do that Elvis thing with her legs on the dance floor. We aim for and envy that which exists within or just outside our grasp. David Hume wrote that envy is dependent on our proximity to the envied subject. He believed that “a great disproportion cuts off the relation, and either keeps us from comparing ourselves with what is remote from us or diminishes the effects of the comparison”. If all humans really were equal, imagine the pool of enviable people we would have to choose from—the world would be one gigantic literary festival. Accordingly, the envy we feel escalates at the point where we realise our competitor’s achievements are just outside our level of ability. “No matter how hard I try, I will always fall short.” This kind of envy can act like battery acid: it will corrode you, and nobody looks pretty with a half-corroded face.

However, in envying our colleagues and companions, we only defeat ourselves by raising them up on a dais, one that seems surrounded by insurmountable challenges, moats of sweat. We make them Beyoncé. Samuel Johnson once said that “whoever envies another confesses his”—the other’s—“superiority”. This is an idea put forward by my mother when I was a child. When a bunch of girls started to pick on me, she soothed me by saying that they only taunted, beat and tortured me because they were envious of how pretty I was and thus I was better than all of them and should just stop crying. Looking back now at the photos of myself—crooked teeth, freckles, short, chubby cheeks, permed bleached hair and gigantic tortoiseshell glasses—I realise that they weren’t envying me at all. They were just nasty. Still, it made me feel better to believe it at the time. I guess the point is that sometimes people envy and others are envied, and sometimes we’re just ugly and other people are cruel.

In many cases, it is a loss of balance and perspective that exacerbates the problem. That is, the act of envy causes every achievement of the subject to seem greater and more desirable than it did when the subject initially inspired our envy. Our own achievements diminish in stature and importance. And in turn so do we. And in real terms, the envy of our equals drives us further into the ground, ultimately making us less able to achieve their (potentially achievable) heights. Self defeating? Quite. One friend’s small victory becomes a huge life achievement, possibly now even the achievement you always, deep down, wanted. A friend received a positive review for an article they wrote? In an envious mind, they’ve just won a Walkley. It raises the question of how much our envy carves our ambitions. Did you really want to achieve that or is it just because someone else did? Imagine the percentage of debt accrued annually because of envy. God knows I’ve contributed. Alain de Botton asks readers to question not what they want, but why they want it. Do I really want to write a book or do I just want to have written a book, be on panels and be in turn envied by my many unpublished friends? Do I want a Louis Vuitton bag because it’s beautiful and useful or because she has one? There are things in the world that have probably been created with envy in mind—not just reunions, but awards ceremonies, the fashion industry, the Guinness Book of World Records and cosmetic surgery.

*

In classical terms, I am the ultimate candidate to suffer envy: I am a woman, I am of childbearing age but have no children, and I am driven—I want to achieve things, I am not content to sit with the flowers and be happy for the world. Fuck the world, I want to be happy for me. And in modern terms, I am a woman with a career and a passion who wants to succeed. I like to be surrounded by nice things and people, and I am vain. I have googled things like “Botox best age to start?”, “best exercise to burn fat?”, and my own name. I’ve witnessed friends riddled with envy for other people and have then seen my own friends torn down by the envy of others. Funnily enough, when I sent an email around to friends requesting stories of times they’ve envied and been envied, these friends, who are usually verbose, especially on the topic of themselves, were silent. Complete white noise. You could hear a Moleskine drop. No one wanted to expose themselves and yet I know they, we, all envy. Everybody eats, everybody shits, everybody masturbates, and everybody envies. It’s practically a law. Some people do other stuff as well but I’m not quite sure what.

And without wanting to sound too much like a doctoral candidate in arts, there is a direct relationship between envy and the proliferation of social media. Cringe! I’m cringing too, let’s do it together. But it happens to be true. We’re trying and trying to keep up with the Joneses, but damn they’ve got a lot of Facebook friends and did you see those photos of Junior Jones with your ex? They looked kind of cosy. If you’ve ever been dumped or felt down, social media can be the final kick in the guts. Schopenhauer knew it even though he is from way back (I’m talking pre-Friendster). He believed that because they feel unhappy, men cannot bear the sight of someone they think is happy. And how could you believe that all your friends and exes are anything but incredibly happy when nobody, apart from thirteen-year-old suburban emo kids, posts photos showing faces that are anything less than ecstatic? My mother has been led to believe—from the eternally thirteen-year-old character I play around her—that I am a chronically unhappy loner. If she saw my Facebook site she’d probably be overwhelmed and die. Caro has friends, in every photo. And a smile—who knew she had teeth!

Social media are tools for keeping in touch, and they are also tools for helping you feel left out. Every event, whether it’s just a casual dinner or a full-blown party, is documented with tweets, status updates and always, always photos. No event goes unannounced, even if only back-announced: and when the photographs of the event you weren’t invited to are posted, it’s hard not to feel left out. But it’s just as hard to respect yourself when you fall prey to this pettiness. You know you shouldn’t be upset or envious, and yet you are. And that is the power of envy, the cycle that keeps you in its grip: you envy, you cringe at your envy, you berate yourself, and you start the game again.

*

One wintry night while watching Simon Schama strut across the screen extolling facts in his articulate voice and envying everything from his knowledge to his red socks and desert boots, I snapped out of my envying reverie and actually listened to what he said. He was talking about Bernini. That Italian artist known not only for his work, those luscious marble feats (to be said in a Schama voice), but also for his looks, for being friends with the Pope, being knighted by the age of twenty-three and for his social standing, and he wasn’t a half-bad architect to top it all off. He was painfully attractive and arrogant. He was bit of a Roman polymath.

Now imagine the envy poor Borromini felt. Borromini was a leader in the field of Roman baroque architecture but he was socially incapable. He lacked Bernini’s good looks, he had no high connections, he had a bad temper and was a bit of a loner. And despite being the better architect he was overlooked for the commission of St Peter’s Basilica, which was given to Bernini. Yet again Borromini had to sit back and watch as this handsome, smooth philanderer swept through and claimed all the glory. It was brutal. The envy Borromini felt exacerbated all his problems. And it was such a familiar tale. Their forefather Horace had already summed it up: “The envious man grows lean at the success of his neighbour.” Except Borromini didn’t grow lean, he just killed himself.

Later, Mozart and Italian composer Salieri endured an envious relationship. Apparently the two battled for years, each trying to get the attention of the German royalty and the Viennese Emperor, each blaming the other when they failed. After Mozart’s death it was rumoured that Salieri poisoned him but nobody knows. Some believe the whole rivalry was concocted, mythologising the characters and the time. Kind of like how New Idea pitches Paris against Nicole when in truth, we all know they are best friends and share sex and vajazzling tips over decaf lattes. Myth or truth? I care only that maybe Mozart was a bit like me.

In fact, sometimes I have wished I was even more like Mozart, at least anatomically. What woman hasn’t wondered at some point what it is like to penetrate in so many ways the person you love, to completely and wholly take them? I have been envious of past lovers who could ejaculate no matter how mediocre the sex, and then to rub salt in the wound they walk away while I’ve been left with the mess. I have envied men I’ve seen peeing in alleys while I queue behind twenty busting women for the pleasure of using a stinking cubicle. I once tried to pee against a tree after tiring of one such queue, and as I did, I envied men their aim and their precision. And I envied their capacity to shake dry like dogs while all I could do was drip into my undies like an incontinent nan.

So you get it, right? We all get envious, some of us more than others. I get envious when I order poorly at a restaurant or when I see my friend dominate a room with his confidence. Cain envied, Mozart envied, I don’t doubt that even nuns envy. Maybe you get envious when you see your mum slip your sister a twenty or when your best friend gets laid and you don’t. What are you going to do about it?

While envying is dangerous for the soul, being envied is clearly dangerous in a bunch of other ways. You run the risk of being kneecapped and backstabbed. Who hasn’t (correction: which girls haven’t) lost their friends at school to some envious hussy who sets out to make your life hell—and all because you scored the starring role in the school play? Career ambitions are frequently the trigger for envy. Take the classic case of the ice skater envious of her opponent’s talents and titles. Why else would Tonya Harding and her ex-husband have conspired to carry out an attack on the delicate knee bones of Harding’s competitor Nancy Kerrigan? For those not familiar, Nancy and Tonya were champion figure skaters competing at the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championship. The attack, which involved a collapsible police baton, failed to break Harding’s leg as planned but the injury was severe enough to force her to withdraw from the competition. Harding was eventually revealed to have been involved in planning the attack, causing her face to grace the cover of Time magazine. She was forced to withdraw from the sport and is now a professional boxer.

People can usually comprehend why someone would want to commit a crime of jealousy and passion: to threaten their wife’s lover or to abuse their boyfriend’s mistress. In these cases there exists a direct threat, because the jealous person is at risk of losing their partner, their family, and all that comes with it. Certainly this doesn’t justify the crime, but if we were bears in the wild, a threat to our family would be cause to tear out an opponent’s esophagus. But to attack the competition simply because they might be a bit better than you, well, that’s pretty low.

Part of the envying process involves proving to oneself that the recipient of the things we covet is unworthy of those things, that they are not as good or deserving. It requires a decimation of the envied, no matter how close the envied and the envier are. Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations—you’ve read it, right?—that envy is one of the few passions that would drive someone to sabotage another person’s reputation. But few people fall prey completely to this desire and if they do, they quickly learn how little they stand to gain. It is rational reflection then, he believes, that forces most envious people to refrain. That is, where most of us just fester with our envy, people like Harding go all the way.

One would imagine that in a socialist society there would possibly be no envy, but Joseph Epstein knows better, writing that “under capitalism man envies man; under socialism, vice versa”. He goes on to note that capitalism is known for its greed, and socialism for its envy, and that the greed of capitalism is really a form of emulative envy. Aristotle wrote that emulative envy is a good type of envy. Maybe he’s right when it inspires a junkie to quit the smack and go back to school but probably not so when it leads to the creation of people like Bernie Maddoff, who took any shortcut he could to emulate the wealth that he desired.

Socialism, on the other hand, is sometimes considered to be envy enacted: the political model of the Tonya Harding attack, where the lower classes kneecap the aristocracy and thereby make them limp along with their assailants. I might be kneecapped by every socialist I know for writing that, so it’s lucky I’ve given up on my figure skating dream. According to Schoeck, C.A.R. Crosland, in a 1956 edition of the book The Failure of Socialism, discusses why the socialist party, his party, chooses to use the envy of the lower classes “as leverage”. It was a comment notably absent from all later editions of the book. Socialism has goals other than the obliteration of envy, but the idea that we might create utopian equality by either raising the social and financial status of the lower classes or removing the social and financial advantages of the upper classes is ludicrous. It would not last an hour before those with a tendency to sink hit the bottom and those with pockets of air rose to the surface, not to mention the beautiful people, who will always be beautiful.

The French Revolution is often controversially cited as having been caused by class envy—many people I know disagree, but I’ve got the conch. While the armies of Frenchmen who razed the palace at Versailles were driven by hunger and fear, it is argued that the bourgeoisie who stoked their fires were otherwise driven. The French economy was in turmoil, as the country had invested overmuch in assisting the Americans to fight the British. Yet while the man on the street starved, the nobility ate macaroons and meats (often horse) slathered in heart-clogging cream sauces. The bourgeoisie were only ever going to stand by in their patched britches and watch the nobles indulging for so long. Once upon a time they too could afford to eat and enjoy life, but no longer. They wanted what the nobles had, and if they couldn’t have it, then nobody should, especially not some Hapsburg hussy in a cake-stuffed corset.

The cult of celebrity and fame is always ripe with envy. Trashy magazines thrive on it. I would like to see the Excel spreadsheet that delineates the breakdown of the profits earned from envy stories: boob envy, butt envy, bikini-body envy, catwalk envy. They could feed a whole village of Cambodian children, or they could have, if Angelina hadn’t adopted them all. It’s also pure envy that drives people to enjoy those editions of trashy magazines that feature “stars without make up” photographs. Why else would we revel in unfortunate images of beautiful people looking momentarily average as they guzzle a milkshake-sized coffee?

My three-year-old niece recently made her first envious comment. As her mother brushed her hair, Young M declared “I want hair like C’s, it’s so much prettier than mine.” Her mother was distraught at the idea that she was now on the slippery slope to beauty-based self-loathing, but it was almost worse that she’d definitively entered the broader world of envy. No longer were the toys, the talents and the beauty she possessed enough. Now she wanted what her peers had—which was about to be exacerbated by the arrival of her first sibling. It is believed that our quality of envying only those whose fates are mildly better than our own is learnt during early sibling rivalry. Some communities go to great lengths to avoid the Cain and Abel problem. In an old Guatemalan ritual, when a new child is born the adults beat a fowl to death against the body of the last-born child. I’m not sure how successful this is but I guess if they keep doing it then it must be worth the fowl at least.

Children’s literature is full of warnings about the danger and pitfalls of envy. Dr Seuss’s book I Wish That I Had Duck Feet is all about a child wishing he was a whole farmyard of animals before realising that being himself is the best way to be. It is very moralistic, but I wish someone had thought to read that book to me. Maybe then I wouldn’t envy the office dog when no one berates her for eating out of the bin.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves is one scary warning against envying beauty. In the traditional story Snow White’s stepmother is the most beautiful creature in all the land—that is, until Snow White comes of age and suddenly the famous mirror switches allegiances. Wicked with envy, the queen sends a hunter into the forest with Snow White and tells him to return only once he has carved out the girl’s heart. The hunter, however, is bewitched by Snow White and sets her free, instead killing an animal and returning with its heart for the wicked witch to eat. The story continues with the queen’s many attempts to kill Snow White, and ends with the queen being forced to dance in burning iron shoes until she dies of exhaustion. The moral is that if you envy another for their beauty and try to eat their heart and poison them you too will be forced to dance until you die. And yet beauty envy still thrives—are we all mad or do we just like dancing?

*

Beauty is the beast that spawns a thousand industries: makeup, anti-ageing lotions, gyms, fashion empires, magazines, cosmetic surgeries, weight loss drugs and clinics, waxers, hairdressers, pluckers, tanners, trainers and protein powder provisioners. Envy of beauty is not dissimilar to envy of possessions—it’s aspirational envy. It seems we have a primal drive to be the ultimate mate, the most attractive and the most likely to reproduce—we want big healthy-looking boobies, slim bodies, pert bottoms, clear skin, bright eyes and thick healthy hair. We are monkeys preening ourselves with one hand while flinging dung on our competition with the other.

But it’s not only the fake nail and push-up bra-wearing women among us who envy. In his book, Envy, Joseph Epstein argues that the modern feminist movement is built on “impersonal, generalised envy”. He interprets the movement as being a form of envy of the freedom of choice afforded to men and not women. As a feminist I’m inclined to recoil at this comment but when I put down my weapons and think about it, god forbid, it might be true. Or at least there might be an element of envy in it. We want the same things, the same education, to hold the same expectations, to be treated the same, to be paid the same: we envy the education afforded to men, the jobs they are given, the treatment they receive. But as Epstein says, this really is such an impersonal and generalised envy: it doesn’t apply to individual males so much as the idea of the male, as well as this mythologised idea of the male life. Then again, though, sometimes it is personal. Really, really personal.

Throughout history, rituals have developed to avoid the curse of being envied—if only I had known them in my high school drama days. The best-known is the Turkish evil eye totem. These circular blue glass discs are pinned to babies or hung in shops and houses to ward off “evil eyes”, meaning envious ones. The belief is that the envier can harm you or your child or business, anything really, just by looking upon you with envy and by offering their loaded praise. The curse and its effects are not purposefully cast by the envier, but are accidental side effects of their overwhelming envy. Enviers are not evil witches—or, not on purpose.

In other countries it is common to touch a child after praising them to undo the evil eye. Some people prefer to spit after praising someone to cast out the evil. According to Catherine Yronwode, proprietor of the rather bizarre website The Lucky W Amulet Archive, if the praise-giver fails to do this, the mother may either (a) mutter a prayer or (b) insult their child to oppose the praise and obviate the curse. Other mothers won’t leave the house without first smearing dirt or grot on baby’s face so that it attracts less envy. Aristhenes understood. He said, “I would rather fall among crows than flatterers—for the one devour the dead, but the other the living”. Precisely. Bring on the crows.

In Italy, envy is believed to induce impotence, as it dries up men’s semen. According to Yronwode, one way to protect against this unfortunate side effect is to form the mano cornuto hand gesture. You probably know this as the sign of the horns, a la Gene Simmons. Men do have another option: they can make the sign of mano fico, or fig hand. In Italy, “fig” is a slang term for the vagina, and this gesture involves poking the thumb out between the index and middle fingers. Apparently this is the way a man appeals to the moist female genitalia to save his sex life from dehydration. Kind of like something you would do in the playground as a primary school kid, but now so much more is at stake. The idea of the evil eye as “drying” is common in a lot of theories about envy. Apparently the Talmud states that fish cannot suffer from envy as they are underwater. I can think of several other reasons as well.

In some cultures it is believed that if the curse is not removed, either from spitting on your child or denying their beauty, the child will become sick with nausea and diarrhea. Yronwode notes that in Eastern Europe the evil eye is diagnosed by dropping burnt coal or matches into a pan of water. If it floats the kid is under the curse. Holy water is used in remedies throughout Greece, Mexico and the Ukraine. There are hundreds of variations on cures and amulets, charms and spells that protect people from the evil eye. Clearly people realised a long time ago that it’s human to envy, and therefore something paranormal is needed to counter it.

*

Of all the sins, why envy? Because I know it well. Then again, I know gluttony and lust and ego and and and..

Or maybe because it’s the most insidious, the ugliest as well. We can hide our envy but it always surfaces, whether in vicious or in self-destructive forms. Either way, we only have ourselves to blame.

I even envy those people who appear to feel no envy, the ones who are just absolutely happy for everyone. Are they? Can anyone really live a life and never feel the stab of the beast’s horns?

You know who else I envy? I envy people who are good at maintaining relationships, keeping in touch. In the end, what really kept me from flying back to the Gold Coast to go to my reunion was the fact I haven’t returned, let alone written, a single message to the people I spent nearly every day of my teen life with. These are the people I should be keeping onside. They know my angsty poetry secrets, they lined up for Pearl Jam tickets with me, and they never judged me for quoting Temple of the Dog lyrics as though reciting scripture. I envy their ability to stay in touch with each other—it seems so foreign to me. However, having seen the reunion photos on Facebook after the fact, I have to admit that I may crave their social skills but they can keep their feathered fascinators.

The photos I saw from my high school reunion really drove home the fact that I am nearly in my thirties, and I think this is when the biggest divides among friends begin to show: those who have kicked career goals, those who have found love, those with children, those without (both envying each other no doubt).

Envy is entirely outwards focused. It’s not really about me or what I can achieve; it’s all about what I think other people have. It’s not really about what I want; it’s about what I don’t have. Envy applies the business principle of thinking at the margin with destructive results: everything I have so far equates to zero, only things gained from this point matter. This means that the problem of envy is, of course, about perception. But one thing it does not mean is that the problem is solvable. People who want to create classless egalitarian societies where everyone is equal and all are one are deluded. Humans are capable of spying advantage where it does and does not exist. We can never be entirely equal, but even if we were we wouldn’t see it as such. Some people are naturally inclined towards envy and others only flirt with it, but envy would exist even if we were all dressed in matching taupe jumpsuits and living in matching apartments, driving government-issue cars and marrying clones of the one woman or man.

If there were to be an upside of envy it would be its capacity to flag our areas of personal dissatisfaction. The things we envy are revealing—which is one of the reasons envy is so embarrassing and gross. If we could just stop channeling all the knowledge thus derived into stabbing pins into voodoo dolls, then we could start to work towards these goals, be they an increased libido or a fatter pay packet. And who knows, in so doing we might in turn become the subject of some poor other fool’s envy. Glory to thee in the highest: we’ve moved up a rung, and then another.

Caro Cooper is an editor and a freelance writer.